Unbridled chaos amid lockdown down under

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Rampant police brutality, belligerent arrests and citizen pushback amid Australia’s Stage 4 lockdown

 

Melbourne has been under one of the hardest lockdowns in the world since July 9[1]. On Aug. 2, the city entered Stage 4 lockdown, its residents knowing neither how long it would last nor how desolate their lives would be for the weeks to come.

In addition to a stay-at-home order, the Stage 4 lockdown imposed a first-ever curfew in Melbourne history, a closure of businesses and a ban on being more than 5 km away from one’s residence[2]. There are substantial penalties in place to deter citizens from flouting the state-sanctioned lockdown restrictions.

According to the Victoria State Government website, those who do not wear a face covering in public, “without lawful excuse,” will be fined $200 AUD ($192 CAD)[3]. Those who breach the stay-at-home directive will also be fined $1652 AUD on the spot, a fine that can inflate to $10,000 AUD for repeat offenders[4].

State Premier Daniel Andrews deemed this lockdown a “uniquely Australian and Victorian approach,”[5] an emergency response that the Victoria police have been implementing with no shortage of might and main.

Chants of “freedom” met with ferocious law enforcement

On Sept. 13, the Victoria police arrested 74 people and fined 176 others who violated the stay-at-home orders to march at an anti-lockdown demonstration, dubbed “Freedom Day,” at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne[6].

Bearing shields and clad in riot gear, the police ambushed the Freedom Day demonstration with the express intention to shut it down. Protesters even linked arms as they were encircled by the police force[7].

“My grandparents fled Nazi Germany!” a protestor’s sign read, “To give our family freedom. We want our lives back.”

Victoria has extended its state of disaster for another month, which confers its police force with authority to enforce public health policies as they see fit, according to BBC News[8].

An officer was filmed putting his knee near a protestor’s neck while his team handcuffs him[9].

In response to this unorthodox mode of discipline, a Victoria police spokesperson said that police “often have to conduct arrests in highly dynamic circumstances.[10]  According to the representative, the officers were simply responding to the situation at hand.

“Many protestors were aggressive, threatened violence towards police and were non-compliant when being taken into custody,” the spokesperson said[11].

Not one to mince words, the premier has rebuked the Freedom Day protests as “unlawful.” [12] After all, public gatherings—let alone large-scale, protracted public demonstrations—are forbidden under the Chief Health Officer’s stay-at-home mandate.

“Protesting is selfish, protesting is stupid and protesting is dangerous,” Premier Andrews said. “And if you do it, you will be dealt with, you will be fined.”[13]

The Victoria police are currently investigating the protests and will impose fines on the Freedom Day participants “once identities of individuals has been confirmed.”[14]

The architect of Victoria’s lockdown plan, Premier Andrews expressed fear that the protests would undo the progress thus far toward the 14-day average goal of five or fewer cases statewide[15].

“No one has the right to make choices like that, that potentially puts at risk everything we are working towards,” the premier said[16].

Officers arrest pregnant woman over Facebook post

The pandemonium at the Freedom Day protest follows a slew of controversial arrests as police enforce new COVID-related laws. In early September, a Facebook livestream that later went viral showed Victorian authorities entering the home of Zoe-Lee Buhler, 28, and placing her in handcuffs in front of her partner and two children.

Buhler, currently pregnant, was charged with incitement. The officers claimed a Facebook post that promoted an anti-lockdown protest in Ballarat, Victoria, was now an arrestable offence[17].

“Can you record this?” a visibly distressed Buhler says to her partner in the video. “I’m in my pajamas. I have an ultrasound in an hour.”

Holding a search warrant, the officer said he was authorized to confiscate any computers and mobile devices in the household, including the one her partner was using to record the incident.

“I didn’t realize I was doing anything wrong,” she insists in the video. Despite her repeated offers to delete the post, the Victoria authorities were unyielding.

“This is a lot of stress on her, too; she’s pregnant. C’mon,” her partner implores the officer amid Budhler’s tearful pleas in the background.

Both Buhler and her partner’s appeals went ignored.

Buhler was briefly suspended from social media but she garnered support from strangers on Facebook, where she expresses her skepticism toward the pandemic and promotes anti-lockdown events and petitions.

Despite her brush with the law, Buhler remains steadfast in her stand toward the state’s COVID-19 procedures, voicing her criticism of the premier’s actions on her Facebook profile.

“I am fed up with my basic human rights being ripped from me because you decide to play God,” she wrote in a post about Premier Andrew’s COVID-19 response[18].

“I want a personal apology from you. You are dooming us all, Dan Andrews.”[19]

On Sept. 5, she went live to thank her followers for their encouragement in the wake of her arrest. She also recited an original poem, titled “Remember, Remember,” reflecting on her daily reality living in Victoria.

“We’re living in a time I cannot endorse / A time where crime is enforced / Enforced by those who want to protect us,” she read.

Police tackle and arrest journalist covering protest

It’s not just anti-lockdown sympathizers on the receiving end of police discipline.

Avi Yemini, 34, right-wing commentator of YouTube fame, released footage of himself covering the Sept. 5 Freedom Day rally in Melbourne for Rebel News, where he was inexplicably shoved to the ground mid-report and handcuffed by several officers.

“I was just doing my job,” he explained in his YouTube video, saying that he was merely a journalist covering an occasion of public interest.

Microphone in hand, Yemini was narrating to the camera the events at the protest when he was accosted by a police commander.

“This bloke is not here for any purposeful reason. I want him under arrest,” the officer said.

Yemini chuckled at the officer. He explained after the fact that he has had playful rapport with the police force in the past and thought, in the moment, that the commander was jesting.

“But I quickly realized that this power-hungry commander was not bantering,” Yemini said.

Yemini is a recent addition to the Rebel News roster, having joined the Canadian fringe media outlet just this September[20].

“I’m media! I’ve got my permit in my pocket,” he repeats to the four officers pinning him down. “I’m lawfully here.”

Unbeknownst to the officers, Yemini’s microphone was still connected and so managed to record the audio throughout the duration of his arrest. After repeatedly questioning one of the officers about his offence, he finally alleges that Yemini had “hindered police.”

The arresting officer later clarified that Yemini hindered the police activity by standing between the lines that demarcated space allocated for the police force.

“Our four commanders asked you to move and you’ve got in his way,” the officer said.

But in his subsequent commentary, Yemini is quick to cite the footage: the commander in question never asked him to move.

“I was alone with no one around me. I wasn’t stopping anyone from doing anything, let alone hindering police,” he said.

Yemini was eventually released without charges.

Looking back, Yemini said that the COVID-19 response created an opportunity for those in positions of power to abuse their authority.

“The government has given these unprecedented powers to a pack of power-hungry people who don’t actually care.”

He is equally critical of the Victoria police’s own Media Unit for its response. Appealing to a fellow journalist, Yemini spoke to Sergeant Anita Brens about his mistreatment by the officers, despite his compliance with legal procedures in obtaining entry to the event.

“There’s freedom of press and you should hold that dear,” he said to the Media Unit sergeant.

She redirected him to the complaints system and urged for his obedience to police instruction.

“You’ve gotta do what they say. If they say to move on, you need to move on,” Brens said to Yemini.

Yemini is taking legal action against the Victoria State Government for unlawful arrest, battery and false imprisonment[21].

He has also launched a campaign “Stand With Avi Yemini” to press the Victoria police to stop persecuting journalists who are fulfilling their professional duty. The petition has a goal of 75,000 signatures and Yemini is also asking for donations to fund his lawsuit that is projected to cost $50,000 AUD.

What Now?

On Sept. 13, the Victoria government began its reopening scheme and relaxed select restrictions as part of its Roadmap to Reopening, a piecemeal, four-step plan to return to normal—or as the state calls it, “COVID normal.” While there are more social and physical allowances for citizens, they are still subjected to strict regulations that vary based on region: Metro Melbourne is undergoing First Step while Regional Victoria advances to Second Step.

The state attributes the steady drop in case numbers to the widely criticized statewide Stage 4 lockdown: as of Sept. 14, the daily average in Metro Melbourne is 54.4 and 3.9 in Regional Victoria[22]. The state of Victoria seems to be only nominally reopening as much of its Stage 4 protocol will still be enforced.

“To get to COVID normal, many of the current Stage 4 measures will need to remain in place,” the Victoria State Government’s webpage reads[23].

Those living in the state capital who have already endured months of stringent lockdown procedures must abide by similarly rigid rules as part of the reopening scheme’s First Step. Citizens must obey a 9 AM to 5 PM curfew

Citizens in Regional Victoria can only leave their homes for one of four reasons: school or work; care or caregiving; supplies; or exercise[24]. Public gatherings are capped at a five-person maximum and private gatherings at the home must follow the “single person bubble” rule, which stipulates that those single or living alone can nominate one individual for visits[25].

The final step in the Roadmap to Recovery, which would be applied statewide, is projected to start Nov. 23. Victoria will enter its last phase before “COVID Normal” when it meets all its trigger points[26]. This stage would mean no more curfews and no more restrictions on when to leave the home, along with reopening businesses and public facilities with some restrictions.

But the aspirational “COVID Normal” is likewise conditional: “Some venues will ask for your contact details. You may still have to wear a face covering. And if you have symptoms, you must still get tested,” according to the state guidelines[27].

As Victoria moves along the Roadmap to Recovery, there is no telling exactly when these stringent goals will be realized. In light of the authorities’ actions, the question remains, how steep a cost on civil liberties will the state pay in order to eradicate this specific threat?

 

Note: This article has been edited.

Sources

[1]“Melbourne stage 4 restrictions and Covid lockdown rules explained.” The Guardian. 9 Sept 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/09/victoria-stage-4-restrictions-melbourne-lockdown-rules-covid-19-stage-four-metropolitan-metro-explained-what-you-need-to-know
[2]  Hadley, Erin. “As Melbourne moves to stage 4, how do its coronavirus restrictions compare to the world’s toughest lockdowns?” ABC News. 4 Aug. 2020. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-05/melbourne-stage-4-coronavirus-restrictions-vs-world/12518376
[3] “Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions.” Victoria State Government. https://www.vic.gov.au/coronavirus-covid-19-restrictions-victoria
[4] Ibid.

[5]  Hadley, ABC News.

[6] “Coronavirus: Melbourne police arrest 74 anti-lockdown protesters.” BBC News. 13 Sept. 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-54139669
[7] “People protesting against coronavirus lockdown arrested in Melbourne amid clashes with police.” ABC News. 13 Sept. 2020. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-13/victoria-coronavirus-anti-lockdown-protest-arrests-melbourne/12659410
[8] “Coronavirus: Melbourne police arrest 74 anti-lockdown protesters.” BBC News.
[9] “People protesting against coronavirus lockdown arrested in Melbourne.” ABC News.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] “Coronavirus: Melbourne police arrest 74 anti-lockdown protesters.” BBC News.
[13] “People protesting against coronavirus lockdown arrested in Melbourne.” ABC News.
[14] Ibid.
[15] “Second step – coronavirus road to recovery.” Victoria State Government. https://www.vic.gov.au/second-step-coronavirus-road-to-recovery
[16] BBC News.
[17] Godfrey, Allie. “Pregnant woman arrested over anti-lockdown rally demands apology from Daniel Andrews.” 7NEWS. 8 Sept. 2020. https://7news.com.au/lifestyle/health-wellbeing/pregnant-woman-arrested-over-anti-lockdown-rally-demands-apology-from-daniel-andrews-c-1301767#:~:text=The%20pregnant%20Ballarat%20woman%20arrested,Freedom%20Day%20protest%20in%20Ballarat.
[18] https://www.facebook.com/lilzoelee/posts/10158482641544137
[19] https://www.facebook.com/lilzoelee/posts/10158512906814137
[20] “Avi Yemini joins Rebel News.” Rebel News. 9 Sept. 2020. https://www.rebelnews.com/avi_yemini_joins_rebel_news
[21] https://drive.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/therebel/pages/48337/attachments/original/1600264281/Yemini__Avraham_-_Writ___SOC.pdf?1600264281
[22] “Coronavirus (COVID-19) daily update.” Health and Human Services, Victoria State Government. https://www.dhhs.vic.gov.au/coronavirus-covid-19-daily-update
[23] “First step – coronavirus road to recovery.” Victoria State Government. https://www.vic.gov.au/first-step-coronavirus-road-to-recovery
[24] ‘Second step – coronavirus road to recovery.” Victoria State Government. https://www.vic.gov.au/second-step-coronavirus-road-to-recovery
[25] Ibid.
[26] “COVID Normal – coronavirus road to recovery.” Victoria State Government. https://www.vic.gov.au/COVID-normal-coronavirus-road-to-recovery
[27] Ibid.

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